Harper: the Grim Reaper of Canadian politics

By Murray Dobbin

There are many things for which we can condemn the Liberal Party of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Right now the one that comes to mind is the tragic possibility that their apparent corruption could lead Canadians to be so distracted they would bring to power a party led by a man who would try to undo everything Canadians actually support. If Canadians fail to remember what Stephen Harper stands for they could end up trading a government tainted by past corruption for a government run by the Grim Reaper of Canadian politics.

After years of indulging himself in his visceral contempt for what Canada is and has been, Harper seems finally to have learned to keep his true feelings to himself. He no longer openly expresses the disdain for the country he says he wants to govern. But as the polls suggest he might be within striking distance of the Liberals, it seems like a good time to remind people just what kind of earth-scorching government we could get with this man and his not-so-new party.

Harper is not a man who readily changes his views and it has long been his conviction that he has a duty to reshape Canada regardless of what its citizens want. When he joined the Reform Party in the late 1980s he demonstrated his scorn for the so-called "grass roots" of the party, telling a reporter that policies coming from the "bottom-up" were "simple and low quality." And the main source of his admiration for Preston Manning was the leader's uncanny ability to get Reform members to abandon some of their passionately-held beliefs: "It's amazing what you can persuade them (party members) to do once you convince them it's the leader who is telling them."

Virtually all of the policies of the Reform Party were written by Preston Manning and Stephen Harper. They included the elimination of the Canada Health Act, draconian immigration policies, massive decentralization to eliminate universality in social programs, and huge cuts to federal funding for such programs. While they were never the government, the party provided both pressure and support for Paul Martin's radical restructuring of the country's finances and social legislation.

Harper was well aware of the party's role in taking the country backwards. In a speech to the National Citizens Coalition while still MP for Calgary West, Harper assessed Reform's influence, boasting "the Liberal government in Ottawa has announced... no new major social spending programs. Universality has been severely reduced: It is virtually dead as a concept in most areas of public policy. The family allowance program has been eliminated and unemployment insurance has been seriously cut back."

Harper left the Reform Party in 1997 over strategic differences with Manning. It is very revealing of the man's politics that he took the position of president of the National Citizens' Coalition (NCC) - the most ferociously right-wing lobby group in the country. Founded originally to fight public medicare, the NCC was Reform's soul-mate. Harper praised the organization because it "criticizes, attacks and gives alternatives to such things as official multiculturalism, enforced national bilingualism, a pro-criminal justice system, anti-family social policies, open door immigration..."

It is ironic, given Harper's outrage over a political scandal involving corporate money, that he spent much of his time at the NCC in a successful court challenge of federal election finance reform. The reform (now in place) would have prevented corporations from contributing to political parties. While no law can guarantee corruption will end, the law Harper fought so hard against - he dismissed it as a "gag law" - would arguably have reduced the opportunities and changed the political culture.

But it was an article in the National Post a few days after the 2000 election that exposed the real Stephen Harper. In the article, Harper revealed his admiration for free-enterprise Alberta and his contempt for the rest of Canada: "Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its services to mask its second-rate status."

There is nothing on the public record to suggest Stephen Harper has changed his radical views. He just has been much more careful about expressing them. The Conservative leader is a man totally enamoured with the U.S. - who supported the Iraq war and ballistic missile defence (despite his coyness), admires George Bush, detests social programs and the equality principle which drives them, and is a proud believer in America's culture of possessive individualism. As such he is more at odds with Canadians' values than any national party leader in 60 years.

Handing over the reigns of government to a man who has contempt for his own country would be a catastrophic mistake. Scandal or no scandal, Canadians need to keep their eyes on the prize: the future of their country.

April 2005
Murray Dobbin is the author of Paul Martin: CEO for Canada? This column has appeared in The Tyee.



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